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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Remembering a Beloved Patron of Moscow Theater

It is next to impossible to imagine Moscow as we know it without Margarita Eskina.
Eskina, who ran the Actors House in Moscow from the late 1980s until her death at age 75 on Feb. 11, was someone out of a fairy-tale, a 1930s Hollywood musical that ends happily and you believe it.
Margarita Alexandrovna was the epitome of the cultured Muscovite, and I’m not talking about stiff collars or pointed pinkies at tea gatherings. I’m talking about the people who make Moscow what it is: a place filled with generosity amidst all of the hostility; a place graced with beauty despite the unending attacks of real estate hoods; a place steeped in the riches of art regardless of the creeping wasteland created by a cloying and jaded pop culture.
Eskina was dedicated to helping give meaning to people’s lives. As the head of the Actors House, she was nearly a one-woman battering ram against the onslaught of cynicism. And over the years she was forced into more battles than I’m sure she ever imagined she would have to fight.
Her first big confrontation came in 1990 when the old Actors House was damaged badly in a fire. You may know parts of this structure as the so-called Galereya Aktyor, the “Actor’s Gallery” shopping center on the corner of Tverskaya Ulitsa and Strastnoi Bulvar. This building, a place of age-old Russian theater and film tradition that dated back to the old VTO, or All-Russian Theater Society, obviously was too big a lure for some moneybags not to set it on fire so as to shove the rightful tenants out.
 It was a scandal that wouldn’t go away – until, as these things happen, it went away. Eskina was not about to give up, though. When the Soviet Union collapsed, the outgoing Soviet Culture Minister Nikolai Gubenko ( turned the building of his now-defunct ministry over to her to use as a new Actors House. Everyone complained at first that the new building at 35 Arbat was not as warm, as homey, as pleasant as the old one on Tverskaya, but Eskina breathed life into it almost instantly.

                                                       John Freedman / For MT
The author's wife Oksana Mysina with Margarita Eskina in 2002.
The list of great deeds done by Eskina at the Actors House is almost endless. She gave shelter to homeless theaters such as the Pyotr Fomenko Studio and the Playwright and Director Center, both of which went on to achieve international acclaim as standard-bearers of the best Russian theater has to offer. Even before the Playwright and Director Center came into being, Eskina gave the go-ahead to open a small theater called the Debut Center, whose task it was to develop new writers, directors and actors. In conjunction with this, the Actors House also conducted an annual award ceremony honoring the best of the new talent entering the ranks of professionals in the previous season. The Debut Award marked the starting point of numerous significant acting, directing and writing careers.

Under Eskina’s watchful eye, the Actors House found ways to continue offering social support to the theater community after the old Soviet Union of Theater Workers collapsed and the new Russian Union of Theater Workers sold off assets and ceased providing services to veterans and current union members. By strategically renting out offices to businesses, Eskina was able to conduct a series of charitable programs on the profits she realized.

In the Actors House restaurant, she provided dinners for veteran actors and their guests on their birthdays. She provided trips to Europe and other locations for groups of actors who could not otherwise afford to travel, by organizing concerts in the host countries through Russian embassies and other contacts.
Margarita Eskina’s Actors House was a place any actor or director could go and feel welcome and at home. Eskina was famous for helping people with serious health problems find doctors and affordable treatment, and the Actors House itself provided the funds for untold numbers of emergency operations. Eskina also maintained an office that offered legal advice to people who required it.
Almost every person involved in Moscow theater can tell their own Eskina tale. My family is no different. I had the opportunity to run a play-reading program with the poet and playwright Viktor Korkiya at the Actors House thanks to Eskina. A show my wife Oksana Mysina directed was performed at the Actors House for two years, and Oksana’s rock band came into being because Eskina provided them with rehearsal space in the early going. The point, of course, is not my family: Oksana and I were less than cogs in the enormous wheel of activity Eskina constantly kept moving. The point is that Eskina was always ready to support anyone’s effort to do something that might benefit someone.

Valentine’s Day — ironically and fittingly, the day Eskina was laid to rest — was always one of the season’s biggest bashes at the Actors House. Everybody who was anybody in Russian theater was there to take in a wild and woolly potpourri of entertainment. The stage on nights like this was packed with famous actors and unknown students working together. The oldest couples in the hall were called up on stage and given awards for their ability to stick it out with each other. I recall Eskina taking the stage two years ago and declaring, “People say actors make the worst marriage partners. I know just the opposite is true. They may have more problems than other people, but actors know how to love.”
It was Eskina, of course, who knew how to love, and who knew how to inspire love in others.

The Actors House was always a beehive of activity, with multiple events taking place simultaneously in different halls on different floors. The big hall might be packed with people who had come to see an evening devoted to a beloved actor or director. The four or five small halls scattered through the building might be hosting performances, meetings, rehearsals, seminars or discussions.

It is hardly surprising that not everybody cared about all this as much as Eskina and the community that benefitted from it. Over the last decade there were several attempts to wrench the building on the Arbat out of Eskina’s hands. These were well-organized, thinly-veiled attempts at raids from quasi-official quarters. One of the most recent attempts was led by a shady organization of former state employees who called themselves Rossvyazokhrankultury, the jumbled name of which boils down to a group supposedly interested in protecting culture.

Eskina beat back every attempt to destroy her home. In fact, one of President Dmitry Medvedev’s first public statements was that he would not let anyone take over the Actors House. Eskina had ways of reaching people in power. Pyotr Fomenko threatened to return all his official state awards if the government allowed Eskina to be pushed out. Meetings of protest against the various raid attempts invariably drew huge crowds of the most beloved and famous actors and directors in Russia, a veritable living encyclopedia of the Russian performing arts.

Russia is a country and a civilization built on the power of personal contacts. Eskina made the Actors House work by her charisma, her conviction, her boundless energy and her unflagging belief that the theater world is one of Moscow’s and Russia’s greatest assets. With her passing there is no telling what will happen to the Actors House and to all the programs Eskina has conducted over the years.

Today what we can say is that, with the death of Margarita Eskina, we lost one of the great figures in the Russian cultural world. Hers was a voice of reason, a vision of charity, a heart of pure gold.